If you live East, you’ll know it’s where everything is happening. Shops. Pop-up exhibitions and galleries. And of course, it’s where all the best restaurants in London happen to be. Obviously you already love it because you live there, and it’s obviously better than anywhere else on earth.
If you don’t live in East London, you’ll doubtless know someone who recites the above with alarming regularity every time you meet up, and is probably pretty insufferable. To you, East London isn’t dynamic or exciting - it’s about weird smears of food served by bafflingly sincere blokes called Neville in Hackney parking garages, when all you want is proper dinner, good booze, and somewhere comfy to sit.
To be clear, some of us live in East London, and we love it. But if venturing east of Holborn is a challenge for you at the best of times, here are the places where you can get proper dinner.
St. John is considered restaurant royalty for a reason, and that reason goes way beyond neighbourhoods or whether you prefer red chinos or Cheap Mondays. Aside from being the most influential British restaurant in years, St. John just makes no-nonsense British food that really makes people happy. If you don’t fancy excellent fish, meat, or offal in the grown-up main dining room, the bar is a happy place where you can grab a sandwich and relax with some wine or a cocktail. People travel from around the world to eat here - you can manage 30 minutes on the Hammersmith and City line, we promise.
Let’s be clear. We’re all pretty middle class. But everyone enjoys the odd reminisce over their granddad’s youth spent down a mine shaft, while pushing their lentil and quinoa salad around their plate at a plush Hampstead dinner party, don’t they? No one likes to think of themselves as a pretentious git though, which is why the Quality Chop House in Farringdon is an excellent place to enjoy some appropriately bourgeois British food in stripped-down, canteen-like settings. The food’s simple but fantastic, and you can reconnect with your ‘roots’ with a satisfying plate of roast meat, or beef mince and dripping on toast. Definitely order a side of the confit potatoes as well, though you might want to call them ‘chips’ if you’re really going all-in on this man (or woman) of the people thing.
With its pretty shops and East Landan vibe at the weekends, only a real curmudgeon could look down on Columbia Road. Most people come here for flowers and funny trinkets, but we come here to have dinner at Brawn. It’s a wonderful neighbourhood restaurant that’ll have you wondering why you’ve wasted so much time on sub-par dinners when you could have been tucking into Italian-inspired dishes like scallop crudo, or excellent pasta with brown crab and tomatoes. The room’s no-nonsense, but the atmosphere is warm and friendly. You’ll never want to go back to Barnes after this.
Sure, there are Hawksmoors all over London these days, but the Spitalfields original is as its creators originally intended, all without mucking around with yuzu and fish sauce and other questionable ingredients in a belovedly old-school steakhouse. More to the point, the bar is as excellent as it’s ever been, serving up cocktails and massive mugs of Shaky Pete’s brew that send punters happily wasted out onto Commercial Street every night. Along with a burger that’s arguably one of London’s greatest, it’s the best anti-FOMO option when you just want to be guaranteed a good night.
Tayyabs is the restaurant version of duct tape. It’s fad-proof, recession-proof, and useful for every occasion. It also used to be the only reason anyone ever went to East London for dinner, and with good reason. Tayyabs is always a good time, and the loud room, BYOB drinks, and heaving plates of Punjabi curries and grills are the epitome of letting your hair down. The scrum to get inside still hasn’t gotten any easier to punch your way through, but you didn’t come out East looking for a mani-pedi, did you?
Fine dining in East London sounds like it should be an oxymoron. Your fears of no-choice tasting menus, chicken nuggets served on a bed of fragrant pine cones picked by Lapland virgins, and other such silliness aren’t unfounded, but real fine dining does exist. Galvin La Chapelle is the East End’s best attempt at a swish West London restaurant, with proper white tablecloths, high-end service, and fancy French food. While the food’s very good and of the photogenic, primped variety with prices to match, you’ll be floored by the impressive space that takes up residence in a former chapel. They do have chapels in New Cross, don’t they?
Pitt Cue definitely looks like the hipster restaurant you definitely didn’t want to end up at when you agreed to meet your mate near Liverpool Street and explicitly said, ‘NO EXPOSED BRICK’. Relax - even though it looks like you’re eating dinner in a poshed-up version of the warehouse from New Girl, the British barbecue here is excellent and you won’t even care that there’s a ‘concept’ when you’re knee-deep in slow-cooked rare breed pork. Service is polished and even the location in a beautiful City square feels refined, so you can have your rough-around-the-edges dinner before recounting your tales of East End horror to your mates later.
It’s important to note that venturing outside of the comfort of your neighbourhood doesn’t mean that you necessarily want new experiences. Not all of us are wide-eyed eighteen year olds on the hunt for dank stories to tell our mates - some of us just want dinner. The Hoxton Grill in Shoreditch is every plush hotel restaurant with decent American-style food, comfy leather seats, and exposed brick interiors that you’ve ever been to. Unlike those other places though, the restaurant has strong Shoreditch vibes and a location in the middle of the action if you want to settle in for a night, but it’s also good if you want to hit a few bars after dinner. It’s a gimme if you’re just looking for a hamburger or a plate of mac and cheese without an origin story.
Eating out in North and West London is usually civilised and grown-up. So, pretty much the opposite of East London’s rep for casual but slipshod, then. If a single person is beloved by both West and North folk, it’s chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose Middle East-inspired dishes and salads have come to define what we like to call aspirational casual dining (it’ll catch on, promise) over the last few years. And fortunately for you, there’s a Spitalfields outpost that is actually even sleeker and more polished than its counterparts, with loads of room for a relaxed breakfast or lunch, and a larger menu of healthful but tasty dishes that’ll make facing your nutritionist / personal trainer easier next time you see them. The roast squash salad is excellent and at breakfast, the shakshuka is a classic.
You’re heading East. That means fermented things, weird dill emulsions, and mini-sliders served on Nativity dioramas, right? Well yeah, but no. There are pockets of civilisation in the wild East, and the area around Spitalfields has spots that appeal to both your mates who work at Citigroup, as well as the friends who take gym selfies at Shoreditch House. Chief among these is Wright Brothers, whose Spitalfields outpost is a place where you can close your eyes and almost pretend that you’re basking in a little West London sunshine. They have champagne. They also have oysters. Hit it for a pre-dinner drink or a reassuringly upscale dinner before you venture into some godforsaken secret bar inside a Lidl delivery truck.
So a few of your mates from your book club have got in touch and decided that, why, it’d be a rather lovely idea to check out this Shoreditch hinterland that they keep reading about in the Evening Standard. Problem is, it’s hard to know where to start, and all of the obscure concepts and weird backstories to each restaurant can be bewildering. Tramshed is a safe space to pick up some neighbourhood vibes while feasting on a bullshit-free British menu centred around prime cuts of steak and roast chicken. Yes, the kitchen probably knows each chicken’s life story, and yes, there’s a bloody huge cow preserved in formaldehyde in the middle of the cavernous dining room (the owner is mates with artist Damien Hirst). But don’t let that put you off - you’ll get a side of art with your dinner. How East London is that?
You’ve agreed to meet up with an old friend who’s out so far east that you can actually see the North Sea on the map when you Google where they live. As you’re considering whether you really need them in your life, you remember that you can jump on the the District Line and meet them at Verdi’s. It’s a chilled, family-run neighbourhood Italian restaurant in Stepney Green with brilliant food that would pack them in, even if it was in central London. Bread and pasta is made fresh in house every day, and there’s an excellent tiramisu and bolognese on the menu. It’s a low-key move for when you just want good, straightforward food, and there’s a warmth and ambience that Dalston and Hackney would struggle to better. It isn’t trendy, but it will make you happy.